James Snuka, who rose to fame in the 1980s as professional wrestler Jimmy “Superfly” Snuka, was charged Tuesday with third-degree murder and involuntary manslaughter in the 1983 slaying of Nancy Argentino, his then-girlfriend.
Snuka, 72, was booked in Lehigh County Jail in Pennsylvania and released on $500,000 bond, according to Lehigh District Attorney James Martin.
Messages left at Snuka’s New Jersey home went unreturned Tuesday evening.
Lingering questions about what happened to Argentino, Snuka’s 23-year-old paramour at the time of her death, have long dogged the Fiji-born wrestler famous for his acrobatics.
In May 1983, Snuka was an up-and-coming superstar in the fledgling World Wrestling Federation, now called the WWE, which in those days taped matches in Allentown, Pennsylvania, for television broadcast.
According to Martin, Snuka, then 39 and with a wife and four kids in North Carolina, was staying in an Allentown-area motel with Argentino,
On the night of May 10, paramedics responding to a 911 call at the George Washington Motor Lodge arrived to discover Argentino unresponsive. They were called there by Snuka.
“(Argentino) was unconscious, and her breathing was intermittent and shallow,” Martin said in a statement. “Her pupils were dilated and didn’t move, indications of a head injury, (and) a monitor showed Argentino had a fast heart rate, which indicated head injury and shock.”
Just a few hours later, she was pronounced dead, leaving only one person to know what happened.
The autopsy report said that Argentino had a skull fracture and died of craniocerebral injuries, something for which Snuka offered different explanations at different times.
According to Martin, Snuka told investigators that they were “fooling around” outside the motel room when she fell, or that she had hit her head on concrete while the two were wrestling or that she had slipped and hit her head as the couple was “clowning around” on the side of the highway during a bathroom break.
Despite his evolving story, it was enough to keep authorities at bay; the family won a wrongful death civil suit against Snuka in 1985, but authorities never charged him.
The family was discouraged. “The evidence was there,” Louise Argentino, Nancy’s younger sister, told CNN. “But it got muddled … (because Snuka) was big star at the time.”
So they gave up trying. “It was just too much,” Argentino said. “It was too painful,” she said, especially for their mother.
In the wrestling spotlight
For the next 30 years, as his girlfriend’s case remained cold, Jimmy “Superfly” Snuka enjoyed the career of a celebrity, retiring from the sport as an exalted legend, even becoming a member of the WWE Hall of Fame.
“His aerial abilities and charisma made him one of the most popular Superstars to ever set foot in the ring — and jump high above it,” reads Snuka’s bio on WWE’s website.
But it was one of the trappings of fame that ultimately led to Snuka being charged with murder: his autobiography.
“Many terrible things have been written about me hurting Nancy and being responsible for her death, but they are not true,” wrote Snuka in 2012’s “Superfly: The Jimmy Snuka Story.”
“This has been very hard on me and very hard on my family (…) I will say this about the whole thing, brudda — that night ruined my life. To this day, that is how I feel.”
For Louise and eldest sister Lorraine Argentino, 30 years after they lost Nancy, Snuka presenting himself as if he were the victim was the tipping point.
“We had given up,” Louise said, “but my sister and I got so upset when Snuka’s book came out, that’s when we called the DA.”
Martin directed his team to take another look, talked to new witnesses and even introduced new evidence: Snuka’s book.
“(The grand jury heard) excerpts from Snuka’s autobiography in which he talked about his frequent use of alcohol, steroids and cocaine and wrote “… in 1983, my personal life started getting a little crazy.”
“Based on all the evidence that was presented to the grand jury,” wrote Martin, “members concluded: ‘It is our determination that the weight of the evidence clearly indicates that James Snuka repeatedly assaulted Nancy Argentino on May 10, 1983, and then allowed her to lie in their bed at the George Washington Motor Lodge without obtaining the necessary medical attention’ and that “his assaultive acts and his failure to act to obtain medical attention resulted in her death.’ “